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Why Are Cars Almost Always Symmetrical?

With a very few notable exceptions, cars tend to be bilaterally symmetrical. It’s been that way almost since the very beginning. Cars that even attempt to play with this accepted notion tend to get smacked down hard — look at the Nissan Cube. But cars don’t have to be so symmetrical — why are they?

Now, a lot of you may be thinking “Jason, you idiot. Symmetrical cars just lookbetter.” Now, I’m not saying you’re wrong, on either point, but I think it’s worth asking why we think they look better. We build lots of other things that we don’t expect bilateral symmetry out of, and many of those we consider beautiful: buildings, clothing, many other consumer goods — so, again, why cars?

There’s actually not much research out there addressing the why of this question, but I have a personal pet theory I’d like to throw out there to see what you think. And it, somehow, involves the moon.

Why Are Cars Almost Always Symmetrical?

Well, really, it involves the Moon Illusion, but only to set up a fundamental idea. The Moon Illusion refers to how, when humans see a moon low on the horizon, we perceive it as much larger than it actually is. If you’ve ever seen a dramatically large moon on the horizon, and then tried to take a picture of that moon with your phone, the disappointment you felt seeing the tiny moon in the photo should tell you all you need. For some reason, our brains make the moon look much bigger near the horizon.

There’s actually no one accepted explanation for why this is, other than it seems to occur inside our brains as opposed to any optical effect. One theory I find compelling is the McCready Oculomotor Micropsia concept. It’s pretty complicated, but one general part of it has to do with how our brains are wired to perceive objects near the horizon with distance cues and the like. The specifics aren’t too important for my point, but what is is that it points to a fundamental way of seeing the world in our brains, one that comes from a time when we were hunters and hunted.

Our brains’ OS has been developed from millions of years of mammalian life, and much of that life has been spent outside, either running from things to not get eaten or running to things to eat them. And, those “things” have generally been one of three basic things: animals, plants, or rocks/landscape/etc.

Why Are Cars Almost Always Symmetrical?

So, I think there’s some very low-level wiring in our brains that deals with perception of objects and does some very basic categorization. These categorizations happen almost instantaneously, so we can react without even thinking if we have to. If we scan a new visual field, I suspect, at some deep level, what we see is processed as landscape, vegetation, or animal quite quickly, so we can process the basic threats/resources.

In modern society, we don’t live in the veldt anymore. But we’re still using the same basic hardware to process everything that we have been for millennia. And what we’re doing with it now is way, way, beyond the User’s License Agreement we all clicked ‘OK’ on at birth.

I think the same low-level categorizations take place, translated to our artificial world. Buildings get categorized into landscape features, vertical structures like telephone poles, cell towers, and power line structures get shunted into the vegetation category, and I think cars get categorized as animals.

Why Are Cars Almost Always Symmetrical?

I’m not saying we think cars are animals, I just think that some very, very basic level of our brain categorizes those mobile, large moving things into the same slot that our ancestors 6000 years ago would have put a bison or rhino or something. And, as such, there’s certain basic rules we expect cars to follow.

We don’t need our cars to look like animals, but there’s some really fundamental things we expect, and I think these expectations are related to why we are so willing to see faces on cars as well. Almost every vertebrate animal is bilaterally symmetrical. Both sides are the same. So we expect that out of our cars, too.

Why Are Cars Almost Always Symmetrical?

When cars deviate too much from this symmetry (beyond just a badge placement on one side or some minor detailing, or the inch or so a LeCar’s wheelbase is different on one side or the other) we react to the asymmetry with alarm, since that sort of asymmetry in the animal kingdom would suggests either a hideous deformity or injury or both.

We don’t expect this out of our buildings, which we often build asymmetrically and still perceive as beautiful. But for cars, perceived as animal, we feel a very gut sense that something is wrong when a wildly asymmetrical car is seen. Which is also why we’ve almost never even actually seen one in production, especially in the front end, where most people read the car’s “face.” Not even the Cube attempted that.

Again, I don’t have real evidence to back this up, or any real background, other than the times I paused in doodling through my college anthropology classes. But it makes sense to me.

So, tell me what you think? Am I an idiot about this as well?

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Author: Jason Torchinsky

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